February 22, 2020
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Blood Sport

Pataudi got caught. But it's India's worst kept secret: there are many who take perverse pleasure in killing near-extinct animals. Worse, they often hunt in pairs with the law. Updates

Blood Sport
Blood Sport

Punishments under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, for killing a Schedule 1 species:

Maximum Imprisonment: 7 years and a monetary penalty of not less than Rs 10,000.

Minimum imprisonment: 3 years imprisonment and a fine not less than Rs 10,000.

Highest awarded prison term: 5 years to wildlife criminal Sansar Chand, for trading in a leopard skin.

Highest punishment awarded: Jail plus a fine of Rs 60,000.

Species on Schedule 1

Mammals: Bear, tiger, leopard, black buck, Indian gazelle or chinkara, Indian elephant, wild buffalo

Reptiles & Amphibians: Gharial, leathery turtle

Birds: Large whistling teal, peafowl (peacock)

Shooting Stars

Bollywood actors Saif Ali Khan and Salman Khan at the Jodhpur police station, accused of killing a black buck in 1998

In the early hours of June 4, in Jhajjar, Haryana, when police intercepted a Honda Accord and a Maruti Gypsy for rash driving, they inadvertently blew the lid off Indian high society's worst kept secret. In the Honda Accord was a handsome 65-year-old man—royalty, sporting hero, and India's youngest ever cricket captain: Mansur Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi, nicknamed 'Tiger' because he killed his first tiger with one clean shot at the age of 16. In the Gypsy were the carcasses of a black buck, an endangered Schedule 1 animal totally out of bounds for hunters, and two black-naped hares. Plus rifles and searchlights and other hunting equipment. All the carcasses were gutted and cleaned for meat.

Amazingly, or rather, not so amazingly, Pataudi and his seven companions were allowed to drive off into the night, after some interrogation, even though the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, empowers the police to detain, without any arrest warrant, anyone suspected of illegal hunting. Nothing further perhaps would have happened if an animal rights NGO had not found out about the incident and raised a shindig. Since then, Pataudi has been in hiding, releasing statements that claim his innocence, that he is old and infirm, that he wants anticipatory bail. As Outlook went to press, he was still absconding. [He has since surrendered -- Ed, outlookindia.com] How the proud can look pathetic overnight. 

Activists claim that Pataudi has been hunting illegally for years. Says Maneka Gandhi, founder, People for Animals: "Pataudi has been hunting almost twice a week. His excesses have been brought to our attention on earlier occasions as well but every time he managed to escape." Even the law-breakers agree. Delhi-based Rajeev (name changed), scion of a North Indian royal family, claims that he has hunted with Pataudi's wife Sharmila Tagore. "Hunting is Tiger's culture, his passion. He hunts every week. It's in his blood," he nonchalantly explains. "He was just unlucky that night." Like Salman Khan and Pataudi's son Saif Ali Khan a few years ago, with another unfortunate black buck, near Jodhpur in Rajasthan.

What is it about hunting that gets seemingly perfectly normal people to break the law, risk seven years imprisonment, the maximum punishment for killing a Schedule 1 animal? For Indian royalty, shikar has been a tradition since time immemorial. During the British Raj, it changed to an instrument to curry favour with high officials. The sahib and memsahib were taken to the jungle with hundreds of "beaters" scaring, exhausting and finally cornering a big cat, so that Lord Lionheart could shoot the helpless beast, have his photograph taken with it, and boast about it over cigars at his Pall Mall club.The Raj went, the hunts continued; the Wildlife (Protection) Act made it all illegal, but the primitive lust to kill did not die.

Ask Bahar Alam Rizvi, descendant of the former king of Avadh, who claims he hunted till about 15 years ago. "I really loved confusing the animals by focusing the searchlights all around them," he recalls wistfully."It gave a real sense of achievement when they would run straight in front of our jeep and then I shot." He still takes his children and plays the same tricks on animals with searchlights, "but of course can't shoot anymore as the law is so stringent". However, he admits that it's not easy to give up the urge; he has now channelised it to target shooting in rifle ranges.

Mohsin Rizvi, president of the royal family of Avadh, fondly remembers how his family and those of the taluqdars of Lucknow would go hunting in the Terai region bordering Nepal. "It was great chasing a hunt on a moonlit night," he says. "I enjoyed the chase more than the shoot. It has been a little more than five years that I've given up hunting animals, though once in a while I do go bird-shooting at some friends' estates."

What is this mindset all about, this urge to take a life for mere amusement? Psychiatrist Dr Puneet Dwevedi feels that a hunter seeks instant gratification of his impulses. Unlike normal people, he is unable to channelise his impulses. Often they are people who nurse insecurities arising from a rigid social support system. The hunt gives them a false sense of dominance. The next stage: if he gets social approval and appreciation for his act, he becomes addicted to the act. "The need to hunt also arises from the lack of any immediate responsibilities," says Dwevedi. "That's why one generally sees aristocrats, rich industrialists, film stars practising this blood sport." Says Rajeev, quoted earlier: "Nothing else gives me this kind of thrill. And, of course, it boosts my image."

Another descendant of the Avadh royal family confesses that sometimes he, along with friends, drive out late at night beyond Lucknow cantonment to hunt chital. "It gives a real kick as it's banned and we still manage to do it, that too within the city."

The thrill silences all guilt, and other rationalising arguments too kick in. "People who eat meat should know that animals suffer much more pain when being butchered in mandis," says Rajeev. "When I hunt I never let the game suffer. Either I kill it in one go or else I quickly fire another shot and finish it. I cannot see the animal suffering. I've shot a black buck too. I've even shot a leopard," he boasts. And chital, sambhar, nilgai. All endangered and protected species. Sanjay Bali, grandson of Rai Umanath Bali, a famous taluqdar of Avadh, proudly talks of the days when he would shoot Siberian cranes, today an extremely endangered species, that flocked at the lake in his estate every winter. "We would shoot when the birds would be around 10-15 feet above us. Then at night we enjoyed cooking the meat. It used to be like a 24-hour picnic those days."

It's the same story across the country. For, the rich, the thrill-seeker and the variety-seeking gourmand is no different from Ghaziabad to Guntur. Getting venison, partridge or wild boar meat is not only easy but cheap in Punjab. Till about a year ago, some shops in Ropar and Hoshiarpur used to openly sell venison and partridges. While partridges used to be sold for Rs 20 to Rs 30 a piece, meat of the nilgai or wild boar was available for Rs 40 a kg.

In Hyderabad, the Nizams and their nobles are now history, but those hunting days have left a strong hangover. In fact, hunting is no longer the purview of just the blue-blooded; it's as much a "sport" for the nouveau riche of Banjara and Jubilee Hills. Then there are the super-rich tobacco barons in the hinterland.The victims: birds, deer of all kinds including sambhar and black buck, and wild boar.

Coffee plantations in Coorg are hunting grounds for the planters and their guests."Sambhar, barking deer and sometimes leopards," says Kartick Satyanarayan of Wildlife SOS, an NGO that rescues wild animals in distress. Some hunters, he reveals, buy birds like partridge, jungle fowl and quail in bulk from baheliyas (traditional bird catchers).The birds are released at a chosen place and then hunted."To make up for their lack of good marksmanship, some hunters often just wound one bird. As the rest of its companions crowd around it, they make an easy target," says Satyanarayan.

How long will this senseless blood sport go on unchecked? "Violators of the Wildlife (Protection) Act often get away easily due to the lack of a strong wildlife infrastructure," says Maneka Gandhi. "For example, there are no rescue centres and the post-mortem facilities are poor." She suggests steps like creation of an interstate wildlife police force and educational capsules for the police to make them aware of the legal framework of wildlife crimes.

Yes, but the principal allies of the illegal hunter are corruption and apathy. Rajeev says no one bothers him when he is hunting in "our area". "In case we get caught outside our area, I pay Rs 50,000-Rs 1 lakh to the local wildlife warden. In UP, most of the forest and police officials are involved with private hunters like me. If I am hunting in a new area, I inform the police beforehand and request them to keep an eye around for the duration of the hunt. Sometimes the wildlife or police officers also join us."

Delhi-based Abhinav, whose family is known for its special recipe of wild boar pickle, even has a wwf sticker on his car windshield. Says he, with a wink: "I got it from some officials in a national park." A national park where he hunted and officials who let him. "We don't have to openly bribe them; a portion of the cooked game and booze often does the trick for us, that is, if they are not hunting with us," says Abhinav.

Tragically, it is common for the protectors of our wildlife to become its destroyers. Some time ago, a member of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) of Gurdaspur district in Punjab was caught hunting by forest guards. Activists also point fingers at a couple of members of the Punjab State Wildlife Advisory Board who are still avid shikaris.

And what does the state's forest or wildlife department do when a big fish lands in their custody? Listen to this story. A member of the State Wildlife Board told Outlook that a family of doctors from Delhi used to come regularly to shoot in the Ropar area. In 2003, they were caught with a dead sambhar but got away due to the shelter given by a senior Punjab police officer. "They have now shifted to the Dasuya area and even though the forest authorities have been told about this, nothing much has been done."

In February, Punjab bureaucrat Puneet Goyal was caught with the carcasses of two peahen and four partridges near his farmhouse in Hoshiarpur. Goyal was nabbed by two newly appointed honourary wildlife wardens, Sukhdeep Bajwa and Gunraj Singh. It's no secret that the state bureaucracy tried its best to get Goyal off the hook. Bajwa and Singh came under intense pressure to suppress some of the evidence. When they began getting threatening calls, allegedly from Goyal's supporters, they approached the Punjab and Haryana High Court for help. The court ordered police protection for them. Goyal was granted bail, and till date the state government has not granted permission to prosecute him. Meanwhile, the tenure of the two activist wardens has come to an end. Alleges Bajwa: "We are not being given extension by the authorities because they want us to let off Goyal.What's the use of our appointments if we are asked to let off the big fish and catch the small fry?" Last month Harpreet Singh, an accomplice of Goyal, who had allegedly been threatening Bajwa and Singh, was caught with a dead barking deer in his jeep.

In February, a sambhar carcass was recovered from the farmhouse of a reputed Jalandhar eye surgeon, J.S. Thind, and his friend Iqbal Singh Dhillon, at Hoshiarpur. The animal had reportedly been electrocuted and its meat was being shared. Forest officials booked a migrant labourer employed at Thind's farm and a couple of other employees, while the two friends got away scot-free.

It is the rich who hunt for pleasure. And for this category in the social ladder, the country's laws are at best non-existent; at worst, a nuisance that can be tackled with money and a phone call to a cocktail party acquaintance. And so ingrained is this blood lust that when Outlook contacted Maneka Gandhi to comment on the Pataudi episode, her first reaction was to try to dissuade us from doing this story as it might inadvertently glamourise hunting. We compiled a list of all the areas around the country where the wildlife laws are being broken with impunity every night, and the various modus operandi of the illegal hunter, but have decided not to publish this information, because it could get some people to head for their jeeps to seek out new prey.

For, the Pataudi incident has not discouraged men like Rajeev. In fact, if nothing comes of the case, it may be a shot in the arm for others. Rajeev says he'll wait for a few months till the dust settles on this case. Then, as night falls, he will be back on the trail of yet another luckless animal.

Shobita Dhar in Delhi and Chander Suta Dogra in Chandigarh with Sutapa Mukerjee in Lucknow and Savitri Choudhury in Hyderabad
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